Lord Love a Duck
The trailer for "Lord Love a Duck" (one of the only special features on the film's newly released DVD) bills the film as "an act of pure aggression"; having seen the film -- twice -- it's hard to disagree with that assessment. If ever a film could be described as anti-everything, this one could bear that label. By fusing a generic teen romance movie with a blackly satirical heart and a penchant for dry, near-surreal wit, writer/director George Axelrod crafted a film so loopy, so defiant, so insistently one-of-a-kind that, at times, it feels like a transmission from an alien world -- one with a rather dim view of humanity in general and Southern California in particular.
Roddy McDowall, in a fine performance, plays Alan Musgrave, the smartest kid at Consolidated High. (The fact that this going-on-18 wunderkind is portrayed by a 37-year-old man only adds to the character -- Alan simply looks far more advanced than his peers.) In an attempt to win the heart of the vapid Barbara Ann Greene (Tuesday Weld), he uses his superior intellect and his innate understanding of how people tick to grant her every desire. The question is why Alan would be attracted to this fluttery, inane creature... a question the film sets right out in answering. See, Barbara Ann, in addition to being gorgeous, has It -- that certain undefinable something that causes men to fall at her feet. Under Alan's tutelage, she begins to harness that power and use it to her advantage, which leads to some extraordinary, sexually charged sequences (the notorious "sweater" scene practically defies description). But her attempts to keep up with her popular classmates drive her to want more and more.... which may explain why Alan is seen narrating the film from within a jail cell.
At one point near the end of the film, a character pleads, "Alan! Where did we fail you?" This question lies at the very heart of "Lord". The venue is Southern California, as it must be -- beyond just because it's where most teen pictures were set, it's the only place that could be "progressive" enough to rename Botany as Plant Skills for Life, not to mention the drive-in church. This is a beach-party movie twisted so the kids are monstrously selfish and the adults are ineffectual as leaders, as authority figures, as teachers, as everything. Harvey Korman's overly accomodating Principal Weldon Emmett responds to Alan's severe beating of a football jock with "Oh, someday we'll all look back on this and laugh." At church, the kids are taught not to complain or question on how their life goes because God works in myserious ways and "whatever happens is the answer [to your prayers]." Even parents are failures -- note that Alan has none and that Barbara Ann never ever calls her single mother "Mom", always choosing to refer to her as "Marie" even when it's extremely inappropriate. More likely, the question is "Where didn't
we fail you?"
On another note, the idea that giving Barbara Ann all she wants will result in romantic entanglement (love-as-materialism, if you will) is a grievous flaw in Alan's plan, but it makes for a blistering commentary on the American dream. The film makes it clear that Barbara Ann is not exactly rolling in dough. She lives in a small house and her mother works as a cocktail waitress (a profession one character out-and-out compares to prostitution). On her first day at school, she's mocked for wearing a cheap synthetic sweater ("Amazing what they're doing with chemicals these days") instead of cashmere. It's made clear that she has to try and keep up with the Joneses in order to be popular... but how to do this? Well, how about becoming famous? Barbara Ann early on states that she's always wanted to be an actress, so naturally Alan arranges a meeting with a prolific producer of teen beach movies. However, Barbara Ann meets a nice fellow who just so happens
to be from a well-off family... except that he doesn't want her acting, the insinuation being that actress isn't the most respectable of positions. This tension between old and new money, played out in the life of a Have-Not trying to break into the world of the Haves, has some surprising and unintended dramatic consequences (of which I wouldn't dream of giving away, though I will note that Tuesday Weld looks an awful lot like Marilyn Monroe in certain parts of the film -- likely an intentional jab by Axelrod, who wrote "The Seven Year Itch" and "Bus Stop").
In fact, part of the fun of this film is watching the story blossom in unexpected directions due to the fallout from Barbara Ann's wants. Every step of the well-planned story feels logical and acceptable even as the film swings from frothy comedy to caustic satire to sober drama to whacked-out gallows humor. The story begins with a Meet Cute between two teenagers, and it ends with a bulldozer chasing down a man in a wheelchair. How exactly you can get from Point A to Point Z is up to you to discover. It's a portrait of humankind that makes us all look like an experiment gone wrong, and it's pretty damn funny to boot.